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Aug 25, 2011

Congress and Libya

Working in a field long dominated by the 30-year rule (in which key documents don’t become available in the Foreign Relations of the United States series until 30, or often more, years after the fact), it’s remarkable to see how the internet has increased access to more recent foreign policy documents.

On some occasions, it’s through established sites, such as the National Security Archive or the Cold War International History Project. But in other instances, it’s more haphazard, as in two documents released in the past few days regarding Congress and U.S. foreign policy toward Libya.

The first, which has received some attention, came from WikiLeaks, and involved a 2009 meeting between the Qaddafi regime and Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsay Graham. Lieberman mused about how “we never would have guessed ten years ago that we would be sitting in Tripoli, being welcomed by a son of Muammar al-Qadhafi,” while McCain promised to push for increased U.S. arms shipments to Libya. The latter revelation proved embarrassing to McCain given his criticism (and then churlish acknowledgement) of Pres. Obama’s Libya policy.

The second document was referenced a few hours ago in the Guardian live-blog of Libyan events. The paper’s reporter on the ground, Luke Harding, has been going through foreign policy documents recovered from the Qaddafi compound. Harding discovered a strange Libyan effort to broker a Libyan-U.S. cease-fire . . . by working through Ohio Representative Dennis Kucinich. (It would be hard to imagine a less influential member of Congress in spring 2011.) The Libyans wanted Kucinich to come to the country as part of an all-expenses paid “peace mission,” but the congressman demurred, citing concerns for his personal safety.

Then, in yet another bizarre misreading of Congress, a Libyan filmmaker named Sufyan Omeish informed the regime, in a “highly important and strictly confidential” document,” that Senate support for Obama’s policy was at such an extent to make likely “a future ground invasion in either late September or October of this year.” This, of course, was the same Congress that featured members of both parties, in both houses, complaining that Obama had committed U.S. air forces to battle without congressional authorization. It was absurd to even consider a U.S. ground invasion ever was possible. Omeish nonetheless informed Libyan officials that “a high-profile US Congressman” would lead the fight against a U.S. invasion.

In the past decade, diplomatic history has increasingly redefined itself as “international history”—for practical reasons perhaps a good idea, since doing so extracts the field from U.S. history, and the preference of hiring committees for U.S. specialists in race, class, and gender. But the McCain and Kucinich documents provide a reminder that, even if the profession would like to believe otherwise, it’s hard to divorce domestic politics and Congress from an analysis of U.S. foreign policy.

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